In my latest piece for LobeLog, I argue that the fluid reality of the Islamic Republic creates a confusing environment for players and observers alike. Yesterday’s unthinkable actions may be considered prudent today, and influential political figures of the past can easily be debilitated by a pervasive opposing faction in the future. While analyzing the often-unpredictable system in Iran, it is crucial to remember that revolution, in the mind of its founders and citizens, is not an event with a definite start and end date. It is an ongoing process and any conclusive summary would impose an arbitrary closure on a continuous evolution.
For the past five days, Iran has been experiencing country-wide protests. Early reports indicate that the conservative opponents of president Rouhani’s moderate government organized public demonstrations in the city of Mashhad—the second largest city in the country and a prominent destination for Shia pilgrims. The gathering was initially organized to protest high prices, the government’s inability to control inflation, as well as other socioeconomic concerns. However, it soon spread out of control and became much broader in its demands. Some slogans went as far as targeting the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Republic as a whole. The geographical spread and the radical nature of some chants has surprised many, including the country’s political factions. As always, Iran’s forever shifting dynamics has forced the majority of politicians and analysts to take a big juicy bite of humble pie. Some are refusing to eat the proverbial baked good, but the majority of fair-minded observers agree that there are many unknowns at this point and jumping into any broad conclusions is imprudent.
In my humble opinion, there could even be some clarity in uncertainty, so laying out the facts, as best as we can, may shed some light on the situation at hand. The causes of the protests are not monolithic. They range from a broad series of socioeconomic and political concerns—many rooted in the society’s ongoing historic calls for social justice and accountability. The geographic spread is significant, but not necessarily determinative of any additional outcomes. Reports indicate that unrest is dissipating, but the exact trajectory of demonstrators who may not heed the government’s calls for restraint is unclear. It is not evident if this is a movement or just sporadic expressions of rage. There does not appear to be a leader for the protests and no political faction or opposition group (external or internal) has thus far been willing to own them.
Both reformist and conservative wings of Iran’s political factions seem surprised and have yet to land on any coherent approach. In his televised address to the cabinet, President Rouhani recognized the right of people to protest, however he failed to even hint at the institutional constraints and the system’s inability to provide adequate venues for expressing discontent. Conservatives seem to support any calls that suggest Rouhani’s mismanagement of the country’s economy, but are taken back by those who are attacking the Supreme Leader. Reformists who until a few days ago were boasting about their ability to read the pulse of the public are surprised by the extent of the protests and, needless to say, unwilling to support radical demands. In my opinion, these protests will have some ramifications when it comes to the realignment of the position of Iran’s political factions vis-a-vis the issues and their internal dynamics, but the extent of that is unclear as of now.
It is also important to point out that protests in Iran are not unprecedented. The history of the Islamic Republic is fraught with big and small public demonstrations related to the government’s inability to control prices, equal distribution of wealth, lack of social freedoms, human rights, and an array of political issues. Thus far the regime has managed to control public unrest by implementing policy changes or using force when necessary. As of right now, we do not have any indication that would suggest that this time around is anything different. Just to be clear, my aim is not to dismiss public frustrations or belittle people’s genuine demands. As long as public grievances remain and the regime does not provide the necessary outlets for expressing discontent and institutionalizing reform, protests will happen. Though unlikely, we can only hope that this time around regime officials will listen to the calls for justice and implement lasting change.
The tone of president Hassan Rouhani's measured campaign is changing. Within recent days, he has delivered rare criticisms of Iran's powerful religious and security forces, lashing out against rivals ahead of his reelection bid in less than 10 days.
To a certain extent, Rouhani’s attacks seem to be even harsher than his 2013 election strategy. For example, he even went as far as stating that the Shrine of Imam Reza—currently managed by Ebrahim Raisi—has avoided paying any taxes. Attacks against holy religious entities are typically considered to be off-limits. The reason behind this sudden shift is due to a number of factors:
1. Rouhani and Jahangiri were caught off-guard during the second debate
During the first debate, Jahangiri was responsible for the brunt of the attacks, mainly levied towards Ghalibaf. Rouhani picked up the pace a bit during the second debate by directly challenging Raisi’s experience, especially when it comes to foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear file. However, it was clear that Jahangiri-Rouhani were not prepared to deflect the majority of the Ghalibaf and Raisi's sharp attacks. For example, Rouhnai's education minister and his daughter were accused of corruption by Ghalibaf, but the moderate duo did not have a convincing rebuttal. Their lackluster performance left the moderate and reformist voices disappointed. They have called for a more robust approach by Rouhani.
2. Influential Conservative Forces Are Throwing Their Weight Behind Raisi
Since the second debate a number of major principlist organizations have officially endorsed Raisi as their candidate of choice. These insinuations have the ability of influencing the hearts and minds of the electorate, especially the country’s religious working class. Some of the major institutions that have publicly endorsed Raisi include the Resistance Front of Islamic Iran, an Iranian principlist political faction associated with Mohsen Rezaee, Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, an influential body currently in charge of promoting or demoting clerical religious ranks, and Combatant Clergy Association, a traditional conservative clerical association.
Additionally, a number of hardline news agencies such as Tasnim, Keyhan, and Fars appear to be inching towards supporting Raisi. Within the past week, they have covered any news related to Raisi's campaign in a more nuanced and comprehensive manner. In order to combat these conservative heavyweights, Rouhani is forced to be much more direct and bold.
3. Furious Protests by Miners Could Indicate Rouhani’s Lack of Popularity within the Working Class
Over the weekend, Rouhani’s convoy faced furious protests by coal miners and their families when he visited the site of an explosion that claimed dozes of lives. Local news agencies broadcasted footage of people that surrounded Rouhani’s car, beating the vehicle and blocking its path. Rouhani’s promise of dealing with the situation did little to calm the crowd.
Just two weeks before the election, such footage could have an impact on public opinion, especially among the country’s blue-collar workers. The visit may have been a shocking revelation for Rouhani who may now believe to be losing popularity within the society's working class. His recent bombastic statements could be an attempt to combat such negative publicity.
It is clear that Rouhani is on full offensive mode and will adopt a no–holds–barred approach prior to the final debate. We should expect a very heated final debate over economic issues.
Many experts are trying to label Hashemi Rafsanjani with certain factional affiliations or political leanings. Superfluous and heated debates are ongoing regarding Hashemi’s exact believes and moral compass. It is almost impossible to box him in because Rafsanjani was as dynamic and polylithic as the Islamic Republic. He was the Islamic Republic. Just like the system he lived to protect, he evolved, shed many skins (not all good), and adapted to numerous internal and external challenges. He set trends and acted as a dominant powerbroker for almost four decades. His fingerprints can be analyzed on every important dot on the Islamic Republic’s tumultuous timeline. Why attempt to fit an ocean in a cup? Rafsanjani was Rafsanjani. He was a phenomena in his own right and deserves comprehensive analyses for years to come.
The son of Iran’s former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mehdi Hashemi, began a 10-year prison term for financial and security crimes on Sunday, August 9. He presented himself at Tehran’s Evin prison prior to any official requests to appear. Mehdi read out a statement disputing his sentence before entering the prison by characterizing it as a “politically motivated” attempt to destroy his family’s reputation. Before leaving for prison, he took time to update his Facebook followers about his social media activities during his captivity.
“I am writing my last Facebook post. In a few hours, without being served an official order, I will submit myself to Evin Prison. This portal will remain open to you. Your comments and messages will be printed on a weekly basis and a family member will bring them to me during our weekly visits. If necessary, I will respond to them as well. I have written an extensive post about my court procedures that will be published soon. At times, I will give a picture, a particular topic that comes to mind, or a memory from prison [to family members] to post on Facebook. This way you will know how Evin Prison can host the father [Hashemi Rafsanjani] one day and another day host the son. The difference is that it seems like Evin is eternal and will not leave…”
My latest opinion piece for Al-Monitor discusses a series of domestic political and bureaucratic challenges faced by Rouhani’s administration. Iran’s domestic political system is not monolithic and cannot be painted with broad brushstrokes. A more nuanced view of the political intricacies of the country presents a more realistic picture of the issues that lie ahead.
By reaching a framework agreement with the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany (P5+1), President Hassan Rouhani’s administration has come closer to resolving Iran’s nuclear saga than any of his predecessors, regardless of the final outcome. However, the nuclear negotiations have caused another big part of Rouhani’s agenda to be neglected — a long list of domestic, social and political demands made by the Iranian people and the Reformist camp. To keep his critics at bay and his support base intact, Rouhani needs to shift his focus toward rebalancing the government. Given the intricate domestic political considerations and the country’s vast bureaucratic machinery, the task at hand is a challenging one.
Backed by different interests and ideologies, which result in varying domestic political calculations, each incoming faction adopts a domestic policy agenda best suited for its constituents. Such factors are often underweighted or absent in mainstream analyses of a president’s performance. The elected government needs to keep the domestic political factions and the constituents content to operate with relative ease. If an administration neglects this delicate balancing act, it is bound to face a tremendous amount of opposition from competing groups. Read more…
My latest opinion piece for Al-Monitor discusses the formation of a new Reformist faction called Neda. The faction could be the much-needed impetus for the Reformists’ return to the political arena; however, ranking Reformists remain skeptical. By vowing to get closer to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the group could open some breathing room for Reformists, while at the same time disenfranchising the more radical elements of the Reformist camp.
The nascent group, which announced its decision to officially become a political faction by submitting a request to Iran’s Interior Ministry, consists of a 12-member founding board, under the leadership of Sadegh Kharazi, a seasoned diplomat and adviser to former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami. The majority of members belong to the youth wings of banned Reformist groups such as the Islamic Iran Participation Front, a political faction credited as the most dominant force within the 1997 Iranian Reform Movement, and the Organization of the Mujahedeen of the Islamic Revolution, a small, influential political faction. The prominent members of these groups were arrested and the factions were banned following the disputed 2009 presidential election.
There are many uncertainties surrounding the nature, ideology and ultimate objective of the new political faction. However, Kharazi has made it clear that one of their major objectives is to “play an effective role” in upcoming elections. Tired of the first generation of Reformists’ inaction following the 2009 presidential election, Neda has taken it upon itself to pave the way for the political participation of younger, second-generation Reformists. Read more…
Iran’s former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami stated that he has no intention of returning to power and politicians from his generation should follow suit.
“I do not have the intention of returning to power…our generation should not return to power again, but we would like to protect [our] values and standards. We will try to promote individuals to power who are most concerned with regime’s aspirations and goals,” Khatami stated.
Khatami spoke during a meeting with the Association of Iranian Political Prisoners Before the Revolution on June 16. Reformist Sharqh newspaper originally published the statements under the headline “Khatami’s Farewell with Power.”
According to Sharqh, Khatami views himself and other reformists as government critics, but emphasizes that they believe in the “foundations of the regime.”
“We have complaints and criticisms, but we believe in the bases of the regime. We do not want our critiques to harm the foundations of the regime. Unfortunately, there are shortsighted views that summarize the regime with a narrow definition. If anyone speaks against [that narrow definition] they say that the regime was weakened. However, a limited view of the regime is what causes the greatest harm,” Khatami stated.
“We all want for [Rouhani’s] government to succeed. This government has a lot of big problems, but it has also done many good things. There are shortcomings, but a big portion of the problems were inherited from the previous administration. So, instead of creating a new arena, the government’s resources have to be spent on fixing old problems,” Khatami elaborated.
Khatami stated that the Revolution belongs to the entire nation and it is the Iranian people who have paid the price thus far. “A single individual or group cannot suggest that they have monopoly over the Revolution, especially groups that neither in theory or practice were affiliated with the Revolution,” Khatami added.
During a speech at the opening ceremony of the fifteenth gathering of the Justice and Freedom Congress of Islamic Iran on April 26, Hashemi Rafsajnai, the Chairman of the Expediency Council, stated that there are no real political parties in the country, but belief in the formation of such entities is prevalent.
“Despite all the trials and errors, we hope to reach a point within our society that would allow political parties to function,” Rafsanajni added.
Formed in 1997 as the Solidarity Association of Followers of Imam’s Path, the organization is the first reformist faction created under the auspices of Khatami’s reformist presidency. Based in Isfahan, the organization changed its name to Justice and Freedom Congress of Islamic Iran in 1999.
“Modern political schools of thought divide political parties based on their executive ideologies on how to run a society – based on people’s votes and the concept of majority rule. They view it as an achievement of modern civilization. However, the reality is that such ideas were formed during the advent of Islam. The Prophet [Muhammad], by relying on the Quran…used the word faction [party] first,” Rafsanjani said.
The Chairman of the Expediency Council stated that Iran’s Constitution has emphasized the importance of party plurality.
“Approved by Ayatollah Khomeini and the people, the constitution clearly emphasizes party diversity, which paved the way for the formation of small and big factions with different opinions. There are no real political parties in Iran, however the belief in party formation is prevalent,” Rafsanjani concluded.
My guest post for The Foreigner:
Today’s headlines are dominated by Iran after a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. was revealed yesterday. Open conflict among the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Iran may not be imminent, but conflict within Iran is ongoing, as conservative factions struggle to form a unified camp and President Ahmadinejad’s party is marginalized even further.
Iran’s maverick president has caused so much acrimony since his disputed re-election in 2009 that the conservatives are more fractured than ever. This fragmentation not only presents obstacles to running the country, but also poses problems for the conservatives as parliamentary elections approach in March 2012.
As the conservatives gear up for the upcoming polls, coalitions and alliances are proving to be more difficult to form than ever. One reason for this was the recent fierce battle between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, which alienated some of the newcomers to the conservative camp. For example, Ahmadinejad’s Chief of Staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaiee and his supporters were labeled as the “deviant movement” for their unorthodox, and by some standards heretical, views of Shiite theology. Conservative camps had to choose a side. They were either with the Supreme Leader, or with their nonconformist president.
Partisan infighting is not a new phenomenon. The 32-year history of the Islamic Republic consists of complicated and nuanced internal strife between the country’s numerous political factions. Evidently, the reformist years of President Khatami, 1997-2005, and the events following the disputed 2009 presidential election highlighted the distinctions between the reformist and conservative factions of the regime. However, misguidedly, the country’s ruling conservative faction is often painted as a monolithic and unified force. In fact, there are numerous shades of conservatism in Iran, which frequently cause disputes among the ruling clerics.
Case in point was the reaction of the conservatives to the results of the contested 2009 presidential elections. More traditional conservatives, such as Mohsen Rezaei, influential politician and former Revolutionary Guard Commander, went as far as to question the election result, while more radical individuals, such as Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, hardliner cleric and a member of the Assembly of Experts, decidedly announced their support for the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Conservative rifts will not have an immediate impact on Iran’s nuclear policy or the country’s general attitude toward the United States. The diversity among the conservatives is related to their ideological and domestic policy differences. As for Iran’s nuclear program, the extreme majority of the conservatives agree with the country’s right to pursue its nuclear ambitions. This is a domestic battle and the winner will attempt to impose his own version of conservatism while in power.
In preparation for the upcoming elections, Iran’s conservative forces have started an inner- party dialogue, which is often backed by public statements indicative of their progress. The conservative forces consist of traditional factions, neo-conservatives, and right-leaning groups.
The Traditional Groups
- Combatant Clergy Association, Jame’e-ye Rowhaniyat-e Mobarez, founded in 1978, plays an important role in deciding the conservative political agenda in the country. The positions by the group tend to be aligned with the government and based on the traditional conservative line of thinking. Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, Chairman of the Assembly of Experts and the head of Combatant Clergy Association, has expressed concern about the divisions in the conservative camp, and he is attempting to act as an appeasing force among the different factions.
- Society of the Lecturers of Qom Seminary, Jame’eh-ye Modarresin-e Howzeh-ye Elmiyyeh Qom, founded in 1961, is a conservative group that nominates the lecturers of the Qom seminary who are aligned with the regime. The society is headed by Mohammad Yazdi, Iran’s former Head of Judiciary. More than likely, this group will play the role of an appeaser in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
- The Islamic Coalition Party, Hezb-e Motalefeh-ye Eslami, founded in 1962, is traditionally close to Iran’s bazaari merchants. They helped in funding the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran during the 1979 Revolution. They are one of the most powerful and influential conservative coalitions and have strong connections with the non-governmental financial institutions. They tend to lean toward moderate conservatism.
- The Followers of Imam’s Line and the Supreme Leader, Jebhe-ye Peyrovan Khat-e Emam va Rahbari, is a coalition of 14 conservative political groups. Habibollah Asgaroladi is the chairman of this coalition and they tend to function under the umbrella of the the Hezb-e Motalefeh-ye Eslami.
Iranian New Conservatives
The participation of three influential figures who comprise the new conservative camp is important to note; Ali Larijani, Chairman of the Parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Mayor of Tehran, and Mohsen Rezaie, former IRGC commander and a member of the Expediency Council.
It is difficult to gauge the involvement of these individuals in the upcoming parliamentary elections, but more than likely they will act as influential figures who will set forth the agenda of the conservative party as a whole. The trio does not represent new figures in the Iranian political scene, but their emphasis on liberal economic policies, moderate political ideology, and criticism toward the radical factions has earned them the title of the “new conservatives” in Iran.
Ali Larijani is not part of an official conservative group, but he and his brothers hold key political positions in the system. He is the parliamentary member from Qom, which has made his relationship with the ruling clergy more significant and more influential.As the mayor of the capital, Ghalibaf has proven to be a capable technocrat, managing one of the largest urban areas in the world. He tends to stay away from any political infighting and often uses his newspaper—the Tehran Emrooz—to broadcast his opinions.
Mohsen Rezaie founded the Resistance Front, Jebheye Istadegi, after the 2009 presidential elections in order to analyze the issues facing the conservatives. He is a regular commentator on various media outlets.
The Radical Right
- Esfandiar Rahim Mashaiee, president Ahmadinejad’s closest confidant and his in-law, is the main organizer of support for the president and his faction in the parliament. After the political battle between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, this group has an uncertain future. It is not clear if they will have enough political influence to carry on.
- Society of the Devotees of the Islamic Republic, Jam`iyat-e Isargaran-e Enqelab-e Eslami, informally referred to as Isargaran,is a radical right-wing group, which was originally founded by Ahmadinejad. After the president’s scuffle with the Supreme Leader, Ahmadinejad’s name has been removed from the society’s executive board.The group has focused on highlighting the economic class differences existing in Iranian society. They pander to the impoverished individuals in the public and have been claiming to pursue “justice, simple living, and combating economic corruption.” The executive board consists of 16 individuals, headed by Hossein Fadaie.
- Unwavering Front, Jebheye Paydar, headed by the conservative cleric, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. This coalition has entered the arena to serve as the alliance against candidates supporting Mashaiee. This group does not believe in the political philosophy of the more moderate factions, such as the Combatant Clergy Association and Society of the Lectures of Qom Seminary, and individuals such as Mahdavi Kani.This group has distanced itself from the “deviant movement,” but it still supports Ahmadinejad. It is attempting to make a distinction from the Mashaiee camp and the president.
At a cursory glance the Iranian conservative block might appear to be a unified and cohesive body, but in reality it consists of a number of diverse factions and individuals with different beliefs. Although the internal political struggle does not have an immediate impact on Iran’s posture toward the United States, it has major implications for the future stability and nature of the regime. Understanding the differences between the various conservative groups in Iran can help us form a more complete picture of the ambiguous decision-making process in Iran.